Getting developers to build the deeply affordable housing that residents of St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood need — much less housing that gives them an ownership stake — has proven daunting.

So, organizers with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association (FNA) are doing it themselves.

Bringing together the financial chops of Model Cities and the expertise of Historic St. Paul, the Housing Justice Center and Hope Community Inc., the Sherburne Collective seeks to transform city-owned vacant properties into resident-owned, high-quality housing to allow families who make as little as 30% of the area median income (AMI) the chance to build real financial equity.

Tia Williams and Caty Royce, FNA co-directors, and Danielle Swift, an FNA community organizer who works to fight displacement, recently met with Eye On St. Paul to talk about how they hope their work with the former rat-infested apartment building at 652 Sherburne Av. will become a template for affordable, cooperative housing throughout the neighborhood and the city.

This interview was edited for length.

Q: How did this get started?

TW: We organized after we learned [652 Sherburne] was slated for demolition. In 2018, we stopped the demolition and organized tenants in the eight units. We talked about repairs and got language about a community land trust and a community-based developer put into a request for proposal [RFP].

Q: Who owns the property now? And what happens next?

CR: The city owns. The collective — Model Cities, really — would buy it and become the owners, develop it and hold it until residents create a cooperative or land trust.

DS: We're still trying to raise some funds so we can get started. We're tentative developers of this. We were awarded the [RFP]. From there, we have a defined amount of time to raise the money to complete the project. We've raised about $2 million, and we've got $900,000 to go.

CR: The county and the city are poised to put in $900,000 [using federal American Rescue Plan money] to fill that gap.

Q: So how soon do you think work to renovate the building could begin?

CR: We hope soon. It's what we define in our Small Area Plan as real equity. You're disrupting a system. You're taking this property, owned by the city and purchased with federal dollars, and giving it to the community. And in a way that the community shepherds it and takes it and creates the project.

DS: If we can close, we could break ground in the spring.

TW: The whole thing is called the Sherburne Collective — Model Cities, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, Historic St. Paul, the Housing Justice Center.

Q: What is the vision for this? Is this rental? Is this owned?

All: Community ownership.

Q: So, the residents will become part-owners? Will part of their monthly payments turn into a share?

CR: We're going to figure that out. There will be some type of home ownership [for people making 30% AMI]. We're talking with the community now.

Q: You're giving people without much money a chance to build real equity?

DS: Correct. And it also preserves their housing. That's what we're seeing in the market. The sales market is high, and so is the rental market. So, when demand goes up, those costs go up. And people are being forced out. So, giving them the option to own removes someone being able to come in and buy you out.

Not only does it give you access to ownership, but it preserves a place in the community.

TW: Frogtown and Rondo are historically disinvested communities. This can help us make sure it can stay affordable. And we can show you all that this can be done. It doesn't have to be 288 luxury houses. They can stay affordable.

DS: If you notice what's going up, you're getting a lot of large buildings and they're pretty expensive. If you're a developer, you want to see return. You have investors who are involved.

We're not looking to make any return on this investment. What we see as a return will not be monetary. It will be in creating the community ownership, creating the sustainable model.

TW: Exactly.

Q: Could you do this with other properties?

DS: Once we do it, we prove that it can be done. There's a myth out there that to create affordable housing, it's complicated. It's not. It is expensive, but it's very simple. You just have to be willing to make the investment.

Q: And you're not looking to make money?

CR: No. Model Cities was willing to hug this project. Take it on. Bring in community co-developers. And they will be a pass through. And they know it. They're not even going to own the lot. They're going to just let it go.

Q: Are there other properties that can be developed using the same model?

DS: We were talking about this and how someone could live here and walk away with real cash in hand [when they move]. Sometimes, I think land trusts can get kind of a side eye because you don't really own the land. But if done correctly, you could still walk away with some equity — while preserving the opportunity for the next family to come in and take their place.